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HERON OF ALEXANDRIA --Math contributions.

N K Srinivasan Ph D
This article is intended for middle school and high
school students and math teachers---to introduce some of
the math works of this great mathematician and inventor
of the Greek period.
Heron lived in Alexandria ,a city in Egypt, which was
under the Greek rulers and later a part of Roman empire.
His name is also spelled as 'Hero' ,due to some
translators using different texts. His period is roughly
between 10 AD and 70 AD. His exact year of birth or year
of death is not known.
Alexandria was a prosperous sea-port and a center of
learning at that time. There was a 'museum' or temple
precinct, with the famous Alexandria Library inside, in
which scholars gathered to do research , writing and
giving lectures in an Academy. This library, a treasure
trove of great knowledge of the Greeks and others, was
burned up and the last damage was during Ootaman empire.

Heron was a prolific inventor and engineer , besides
being a mathematician and physicist. He is classed with
such geniuses as Pythagoras, Leonardo da vinci and even
Thomas Edison of our times.
Before taking up his math works, I will give a short,
partial list of his inventions, some of which were
practical devices and some fascinating "toys".
1 His most famous device is a small steam rotor with
steam going out of nozzles from a spherical bulb. This
device is considered as the first steam engine.
2 He made a water operated device to open and close
temple doors.
3 He made a coin vending machine--to dispense holy water
when a coin is dropped into the pan of a balance.
4 He developed syringes.
5 He built land surveying equipment , called 'diopter'
like a theodolite.
6 He made a musical drum operated by wind power to make
thunder-like sound.
7 He built an odometer to measure the distances traveled
by horse drawn carts.

8 He is credited with studies on laws of mirror
reflection and several optical devices with mirrors.
9 He developed a puppet theater using weights and
Math works
Now we shall turn to his mathematical discoveries given
in his book " Metrika". He wrote several books which are
like lecture notes. Possibly 'Metrika' is a compilation
of other's works as well. Be that as it may, the
following math formulae are attributed to Heron by

1 Area of a triangle
His formula for area of a triangle is ,perhaps, most
widely known and is mentioned in almost all geometry
Heron's formula : area = sqrt[ s (s-a) (s-b) (s-c)]
where s is the semi-perimeter ; s = (a+b+c)/2
This is a very useful formula for area of a triangle
because it does not require a knowledge of any angle
,but only the length of the three sides.

The proof or derivation of this formula is pretty long
and tedious; you will find a proof in the book:
"William Dunham: Journey through Genius."
Note that this formula can fail if one of the sides is
equal to semi-perimeter s. In that case,alter the length
of the side slightly to a lower value.
Much later, Brahma Gupta , an Indian mathematician and
astronomer of 6th century, derived a similar formula: an
area formula for a cyclic quadrilateral :
area = sqrt[(s-a)(s-b)(s-c)(s-d)]
[which reduces to Heron's formula when a=0.] A cyclic
quadrilateral is a quadrilateral circumscribed by a
It is a moot point whether Brahma Gupta knew Heron's

2Formula for square root and cube root ,using iteration.
Heron gave a simple, but powerful formula to calculate
square root of any number N by an iterative procedure.
Start with an approximate root x(0) ;

Then x(1) = (1/2)[x(0) + N/x(0)]
Now you plough back x(1) on the right side and get the
next approximation x(2). Repeat the 'iterations'.
Usually 3 or 4 iterations are sufficient to get the
square root of N to four or five decimal place accuracy.

Example: To find square root of N = 2.
Let us begin with x(0) = 1.
Then x(1) = (1/2) [ 1 + 2/1] = 1.5
x(2) = (1/2) [ 1.5 + 2/1.5] = 1.4166
x(3) = (1/2) [ 1.4166 + 2/1.4166]
= (1/2) [1.4166 + 1.41183]
We can stop here; we already have accuracy to fourth
decimal place.
My Casio calculator gives: sqrt(2)=1.414213
Calculators often use the same or similar 'algorithm' to
get square roots.
Heron's formula, at once simple and of powerful nature,
may appear strange.
It takes the arithmatic mean of x and N/x as the next

approximation. Let the actual root be x'.
If x is an underestimate of the square root, then N/x
will be an overestimate of the square root. Therefore
Heron takes the arithmetic mean of x and N/x by adding
them and dividing by two. This is a qualitative
explanation for Heron's formula.
This formula is also called "Babylonian method" by some
[ Newton-Raphson method:
This formula can be easily derived from Newton_Raphson
formula , which uses Calculus.If you are not familiar
with calculus, you can skip this section.
To find the sqrt(N) , we write the formula:
f(x) = x
-N = 0
Newton -Raphson iterative formula :
x(n+1) = x(n) - f(x)/f'(x)
where f'(x) is the derivative or differential
coefficient of f(x);
Here, f'(x) = 2x
So , N-R formula becomes:
x(n+1) = x(n) - (x(n)

x(n+1) = x(n) - x(n)/2 + N/ 2x(n)
= x(n)/2 + N/2x(n)
= (1/2) [ x(n) + N/x(n)]
This is the same formula as Heron's!

Newton_Raphson method has the power of 'second order
convergence' or "quadratic convergence' which means that
the accuracy improves by two decimal places with each
iteration. So, you need only two iterations for 4 -place
accuracy if the initial root is close to the actual one.
Therefore it is not surprising that Heron's formula is
very powerful.

3 Heron's Cube root formula
To find the cube root of N, find two numbers a, and b,
such that a
< N < b

Let d = N - a

and D = b
- N
Cube root of N = C = a + [bd /(bd+aD)] (b-a)
Example : Find the cube root of 30 .
Let a = 3 b= 4

d = 30 - 27 = 3
D = 64 - 30 = 34
Then C = 3 + 12/114 = 3.10526
My Casio calculator gives: 3.1068
[ There are several simpler formulae for cube roots
based on secant method for solving such problems.
The present author uses a simpler formula based on
linear interpolation:
C = a+ (d/d+D)[b-a].
The procedure can be iterated with next approximation.]
Applying Newton-Raphson method, we can get the following
iteration formula:
x' = (1/3) [ 2x + N/x
For N =30, start with x =3
x' = (1/3) [ 6 + 30/9] = 3.1111
x'' = (1/3) [ 6.2222 + 30/9.679]
= (1/3) [ 6.2222 + 3.099494]
= 3. 1072385
This formula is the one widely used for cube roots,
though the initial guess should be close to the actual

The Casio calculator gives: Cube root of 30 = 3.1072289.
Note that Heron's formula for cube root is not derived
from N _R method. Heron's method starts with two numbers
which are either greater or lesser than the root and
makes approximation to the root.

Halley's Method
You may recall the name of the famous astronomer Edmond
Halley (1678-1715) ,known for the comet "Halley's comet"
which visits us once in 76 years.
Halley extended the Newton-Raphson method by taking the
second derivative of the function f(x): f"(x).
His formula was later modified by Bailey and is very
powerful for solving such equations [f(x)= 0] and for
finding square roots and cube roots.
His iterative formula ,starting with initial root x is
as follows:
x' = x - (2f(x)f'(x))/ [ 2 f(x)
-f(x)f" (x)]
This iteration has 'cubic convergence' ---which means
that the error gets reduced to three decimal places with
each iteration.

Example :To find cube root of 30,
f(x) = x
-30 =0,
then f'(x) = 3x
and f"(x) = 6x
Let us take x = 3.0 as the initial root.
f'(x) =27 f"(x) = 18
Plugging in , we get: x' = 3.1071428
The Casio calculator gives : 3.106880
The error is : 0.0003 , in just one iteration.!
Note: If you have learned Taylor series expansion for a
function f(x) near x=a, you can easily derive
Newton-Raphson formula and Halley's formula. Try this!
4 Heronic mean
Heron developed a formula for mean value using both
arithmetic mean and geometric mean. If a and b are two
numbers,then Heronic mean is as follows:
Heronic mean H = (1/3) [ a + sqrt(ab) + b ]
If a=3 and b= 5, then H = (1/3) ( 3 + 2.828 + 5 )
= 3.6095
This is a weighted average of arithmetic mean and
geometric mean:

H = (2/3)4 + (1/3)2.828 = 3.6093
The motivation for using this mean is not clear and
Heron must have found some application .
Heron's contributions are wide in scope and was far
reaching in his time . His inventions and engineering
skills must have been very powerful in transforming the
society . His book 'metrica' was found only in
1896.While several methods for extracting square roots
of numbers exixt, Heron's method or algorithm is the
most popular and rapid method.
1 William Dunham -- Journey through genius
2 An article by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson [Univ of
St Andrews]
3 T L Heath -- A history of Greek Mathematics-- 2 vols
Cambridge U Press.
4 N K Srinivasan--Numerical methods for engineers--CBS
publishers, New Delhi.
5 "Mathworld" websites